Brain scan technology poised to play policy role
WASHINGTON, May 02 (Reuters Health) - Information gathered by new brain imaging techniques could soon play a major role in how public policy decisions are made, members of a federal academic advisory panel said Wednesday.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and other brain scanning tools are for the first time providing meaningful insights into the way human brains change and develop during the early years of life. This new information could hold implications for shaping education, healthcare and even criminal justice policy.
"Now that we can observe these changes, we may be able to influence them," Dr. Jay Giedd, chief of child psychiatry at the National Institutes of Mental Health, told the committee on adolescent health and development of the National Academies of Science.
Scientists have understood for hundreds of years that humans' ability to learn changes over their life span. Many people who had great difficulty learning a second language in high school wish that they had been exposed to multiple languages in childhood, when humans seem primed to absorb multiple languages without effort.
Now increasingly consistent research is showing that areas of the brain responsible for such disparate functions as reading, language acquisition, and impulse and anger control undergo rapid growth spurts before and during puberty. Neuroscientists are quickly solidifying a consensus that the connections between brain cells that underlie new learning become hard-wired if they are used repeatedly during these spurts but can be lost if they are not.
"It really happens on a use it or lose it basis," said Dr. Paul Thompson, a researcher in the brain imaging and mapping laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Thompson presented data showing that the frontal areas of the human brain responsible for attention, vigilance and alertness undergo rapid growth between ages 3 and 6. Ages 7 to 15 see spurts in parts of the brain called the temporal and parietal lobes, where language and math skills are centered.
Computerized brain imaging technology is still in its infancy. Most of the data presented were no more than 18 months old. Scientists are just beginning to understand the physical changes young brains undergo and have barely scratched the surface of how these changes affect brain functioning and ultimately behavior.
"It's the very early days of brain imaging. The bridge between structure and functioning is a very slow one to be built," Thompson told committee members.
Presentations before advisory committees like this one are important because they can suggest where policymakers' decision making could head over the next decade. Committees like the adolescent health advisory panel recommend studies to the Institute of Medicine and other organizations at the National Academies of Science. Those studies in turn help lawmakers and other government officials to formulate, or sometimes justify, their policy decisions.
"The future implications of this new understanding of the brain are huge for the juvenile justice system, for learning policy, for education," Dr. Robert Blum, the committee's vice-chair, said in an interview. "It is going to force us to rethink so much of how we deal with kids' behavior and their violent behavior."
Brain imaging technologies are already being used in public policy. The National Institute of Drug Abuse and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy have for the last 6 months used computer-enhanced images of debilitated brains in advertisements meant to dissuade teens from using Ecstasy.
Researchers say that the next step for their studies is to obtain data showing how the brain changes as young people age and grow. Good fMRI technology and three-dimensional imaging haven't been available long enough for those data to have materialized yet.
But some warned of a danger that a greater understanding of the physical brain and its influence on behavior could lead to the writing off of children with apparently abnormal brains. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who is now a member of the advisory committee, cautioned against using brain science to label children.
"What this tells us so far is that the last thing you want to do is pinpoint and stereotype a kid too early," she said in an interview.
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